Making the Right Play

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[Editor's Note: I'm pleased to welcome, yes, the third new Commander writer for Quiet Speculation! Robert will handle further introduction below but I hope you'll find time to squeeze all three of our new faces into the mix. Enjoy!]

Welcome to my new column here on Quiet Speculation. Stay a while and listen! (Bonus points for those who get the reference.)

A Few Facts about Me

  • I’ve been playing since Fallen Empires with no breaks
  • All except 2 years of that has been focused on multiplayer, whether the standard 4-of, 60 card deck format (hereafter referred to as 4/60 multiplayer) or Commander (EDH)
  • I enjoy every aspect of Magic, and build decks that do pretty much everything

What I Plan to Write About

  • My experiences with Commander (EDH) and how you can apply it to your play
  • Game theory as it applies to Commander
  • Multiplayer politics and how to work with your group
  • Commander reviews where I talk about a particular commander (or several similar ones) and discuss strategy
  • Individual card discussions (this includes set reviews, looking for diamonds in the rough, and anything else interesting that comes to mind)

Today I’m going to talk a little about game theory, and a little bit about math.

Eww, math.

Yeah, for the most part, I share your sentiments.

On the Subject of “Overpowered” Creatures

Commander is the format of haymakers. Playing Commander means casting spells that have a converted mana cost of 7 or 8 without even blinking an eye. We like our spells big, and we like them to have a correspondingly large impact on the game. Creatures that are good enough in the land of board sweepers are often so over the top that they require an immediate response (which perpetuates the board sweeper proliferation, but that’s a topic for another article). Today I’m going to look at the best ways to deal with threats like these as opposed to the way they typically get handled.

But you can just Control Magic them and then you get all the value, right? Blue makes everything better!

Not necessarily. Sometimes trying to use someone else’s stuff just puts you farther in the hole.

Wait, what?

Let me explain.

When the Right Play is the Wrong Play

When faced with a big threat in multiplayer, oftentimes the first thought that people have is “How am I going to deal with that?” This in and of itself is not wrong. The problem is the solution that many people pick.

Say one of your opponents (we’ll call him Jim) drops a Primeval Titan and gets a Volrath's Stronghold and some other busted land. You have a way to exile the Titan or take control of Jim’s [card Primeval Titan]Prime Time[/card], let’s say Swords to Plowshares and Control Magic, in hand and can play either. What’s the Right Play ™?

Many players (in fact, most of the ones I’ve met) will tell you the right answer is to steal the Primeval Titan and start attacking with it to get triggers out of it. It seems like a good idea, right? Getting free lands while you attack someone with their own threat looks like a good idea. It’s not quite that easy, though.

As I mentioned above, Jim fetched a Volrath's Stronghold with his Primeval Titan trigger. This suggests he’s planning on reusing his creatures to some degree, and there are very few creatures more potent to abuse with enters the battlefield (ETB) triggers than Titans. If you play against Jim regularly, you probably know he has a lot of reanimation effects in his deck.

Commander is the format of board sweepers, so it’s likely that Primeval Titan is going to be dead shortly. At that point, Jim can happily reanimate it using one of the other cards in his deck, or just by using the Volrath's Stronghold he already tutored up. Effectively, you turned your Control Magic into two non-entwined Reap and Sow, or nothing but a tempo loss for Jim if you don’t actually ever get to attack with it. You could Swords to Plowshares the Titan in response to the sweeper, but then you’re spending two cards instead of one. Despite the potential upside of stealing the Titan, you’re going to be better off exiling it now, while you have the chance, rather than waiting until later in hopes of getting a better payoff since it’s highly likely you’ll need to do it anyway.

The problem is there was a basic fallacy in our initial assumption: you assumed that someone won’t steal the Titan from you or kill it after you’ve spent the card to take it from Jim before you get some value out of it. The problem is, with a multiplayer situation, this is much more likely to occur than to not occur, and the ideal time to do it is before you get anything out of it.

For those of you familiar with the concept of the Danger of Cool Things, “stealing the big threat rather than exiling it” is a prime example of that issue. Stealing a Primeval Titan and getting the triggers out of it is exciting! It’s a very powerful card with the potential to break the game wide open! Why wouldn’t I want to try and steal it?

By not exiling it immediately you’re giving Jim the ability to abuse it again later, requiring you to use more cards to answer it again later. Jim will, almost without a doubt, have more ways to abuse the cards in his deck then you will have ways to abuse the cards in his deck. Even if you can get something out of stealing one of your opponent’s creatures, you’re most likely better off putting it somewhere where they can’t abuse it (graveyard, exile, shuffled into library) than leaving it on the battlefield. Considering how the rules of card advantage change in a multiplayer situation, your best bet will be to use the fewest cards possible to answer problems.

The “stealing it is better than exiling it” thought process leads to several things. First, you end up with banning discussions and in some cases actual bannings (Kokusho, the Evening Star says "Hi!") that are unnecessary. People lose to a powerful card because they didn’t play the appropriate removal spell and then get angry. Second, it creates what many people consider an unfun board state where a single card becomes the complete focus of the game, which is incidentally the reason most often cited for [card Kokusho the Evening Star]Kokusho[/card] being banned. Rather than pass the threat around the table, everyone would be far better served by cutting their losses and exiling the card.

So what does all this mean for me when I go to construct a shiny new Commander deck (or update an existing one)?

Picking the Right Tools

Now that we have the basic ideas of risk vs. reward down, we can distill that into some guidelines for deck construction. In general, you need to play ways to exile troublesome cards and play ways to get your own troublesome cards back.

Starting with ways to exile cards, you have a few different options. If you’re in white, there’s many ways to exile pretty much anything short of lands. Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile are the all-stars for targeted creature removal, and you also have access to exiling sweepers like Final Judgment. Return to Dust is an excellent card for dealing with shenanigans regarding enchantments or artifacts.

Blue can exile as a bonus following a counterspell with spells like Dissipate and Counterbore, but is generally light in the exile arena. Black is the king of removing the cards before they become a problem with effects like Sadistic Sacrament (often referred to colloquially as Cap effects, after the Original Gangster of this effect, Jester's Cap). Red has a few removal spells that will exile a creature (Disintegrate) or artifacts (Into the Core).

Green has no real way to exile things while they’re on the battlefield, but they do have a few ways to exile from the graveyard (Night Soil) or put them back in the deck (Deglamer). The occasional artifact can also do the job (Brittle Effigy).

Another often overlooked way to exile things is to play graveyard hate. Most decks play significant amounts of recursion to reuse their powerful effects so having ways to exile them from the graveyard should be a consideration for every deck. Thankfully, artifacts really lead the way in this category, with green and black having very strong options as well. Just because you can’t deal with it on the battlefield doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of it once it’s in the graveyard.

For getting your own troublesome cards back, it’s entirely dependent on what type of permanent you happen to need to reuse. Green has the most versatile recursion effects, black is the best at creatures, blue and red work instants and sorceries, and white can cover artifacts and enchantments.

Stealing is bad…Or is it?

I bashed on Control Magic effects (or steal effects, pick a term of your choice) quite a bit. The truth is, while they potentially have a lot of upside, they can potentially hurt you as much as they help. Enchantment-based versions are choice targets for enchantment removal. Non-enchantment based versions are still weak to bounce, which normally would let you replay your own beater, but in fact gives it back to your opponent if you stole something. There’s also the occasional silver bullet like Brooding Saurian which can ruin your entire plan.

Really, the steal effects that tend to be effective are the ones that also cheat mana cost in a similar vein to Aeronaut Tinkerer. Bribery is a prime example because it lets you steal your opponent’s biggest creature and put it directly onto the battlefield. Steal effects also tend to generate a lot more frustration and enmity from your fellow players than simply destroying the creature would, so keep in mind when trying to maneuver at a multiplayer table.

A little from column A, a little from column B

I hope you found all this information about selecting and using your removal an enlightening experience. Always remember to use your weapons the right way the first time. I'm looking forward to feedback on this article so I can give you more of what you want in the future; speak up in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Making the Right Play

  1. Great to see your first article up here! I thought your example illustrated why it’s a better play to Swords the Titan than to steal it, but thinking about your Kokusho point, it might make for a better game to steal the threat. Anyway, I can always use some more points, thanks for asking Deckard Cain!

  2. There are occasions where stealing Kokusho is right, I think . The problem is, the majority of the time it's best to get rid of him. Frankly, if your opponent is running Kokusho, they have way more ways to abuse him than you do, so you should be playing appropriately.

  3. Awesome post! For a guy that usually plays non-white non-blue it's important for me to understand this aspect of control in the game. I am running a goblin Commander(EDH) deck with Wort, Boggart Auntie (Red/Black). I currently have next to no non-permanent cards. In order to augment the strength of numbers I have these cards: Rally the Forces, Goblin Offensive, Brightstone Ritual and Traitor's Roar. I figure at a minimum one should be swapped out for Disintegrate, but I can't decide which. In general I feel like this deck is meant to be played as a naturally doesn't have control because of the need for maximizing goblins and effects that boost their damage output. When a card like the Titan or Kokusho arrive I just think to myself…more goblins so I can overwhelm. Due to the nature of goblins I could have recurring damage from gempalm incinerator(which I understand would be the wrong move against the dragon..since it would immediately trigger what I don't want to happen) or use one of my sacrifice outlets to deal direct damage as well. Am I being too narrow minded on the view of the board with this deck? I agree with the graveyard hate. Too many times..and this includes myself with all the tribal creature decks I like to build…graveyard recursion is built into the deck to maintain strength throughout the length of the game. Some pretty nasty combos can be triggered by black especially by placing cards into the graveyard, then bringing them back for very little cost. Anyway that's my two bits for now.

  4. Derrick,

    You're best off running more graveyard hate, and possibly some Cap effects from black. Red and black have plenty of ways to get creatures into the graveyard, and from there it's just a matter of sealing the deal. One trigger of most creatures that go to the graveyard aren't a problem. It's the 3rd and 4th trigger that become the issue.

    Consider adding any of the following:
    – Earwig Squad (definitely should be in your Goblins if not already)
    – Sadistic Sacrament (hilariously good when kicked
    – Puppeteer Clique (GY hate that gives you a guy, plus it's reusable)

    I would avoid Relic of Progenitus unless you think you can time it right because you probably don't want to give up your own graveyard if you can help it with Wort, Boggart Auntie as a general.

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